Days numbered for bulky PC monitors

The marriage of cathode ray tubes and computers is headed for the rocks. After decades of pairing with PCs, hulking CRT (cathode ray tube) displays are being supplanted by thin and flat LCDs (liquid crystal displays) – but until the transition occurs, you’ll find increasingly great CRT bargains.

Despite the jump in LCD sales, three out of four monitors bought in the fourth quarter of 2001 were LCDs, according to market figures. Drastic price drops for LCDs are credited with eroding CRT sales. The switch will only get more dramatic: this year, 40 per cent of monitors sold in the U.S. will be flat screens, according to market researchers at ARS Inc.

Still, CRTs hold a substantial price advantage over LCDs in sizes larger than 15 inches. One of the cheapest 19-inch LCDs available is a US$935 model made by ViewSonic Corp. By comparison, a CRT monitor with equal viewing area (a 21-inch Philips 201b) sells for $299. Future Power Inc.’s 15-inch LCD costs $300, compared to a $100 AOC International 17-inch CRT.

What’s more, analysts say CRTs are an endangered species. Prices have about bottomed out and innovation has hit a brick wall, says Barry Young, CRT analyst with Display Search.

Within four years, finding a CRT monitor in a retail store could be like trying to find a turntable at Best Buy, says Sam Bhavnani, an ARS analyst. He predicts 15-inch CRTs will exit the market completely this year.

CRT technology will, of course, live on in millions of living rooms inside the family television set. But when it comes to PCs, the signs of an LCD revolution are clear.

“In parts of the world, like Japan, you [already] have to really hunt around to even find a CRT in stores,” says Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research at Stanford Resources-Isuppli. CRT technology has hit a dead end, Young says. “Research and development dollars are now pouring into flat panel display technology, not CRTs,” he says.

Apple Computer has ditched CRT monitors altogether and only sells LCD displays with new systems. CRT manufacturers NEC Mitsubishi and Hitachi have both stopped making CRT monitors, but both continue to sell CRTs manufactured by third parties.

Taiwan’s major CRT makers saw unit production drop 15 per cent in 2001, and expect another 15 percent drop this year, according to Market Intelligence Center of Taiwan. Correspondingly, LCD monitor manufacturing is expected to grow 188 percent in 2002.

Diehard CRT monitor users will resist change until LCD technology gets even better and cheaper, the market-watchers say. That’s because when it comes to brightness, vivid colors, and resolution versatility, CRT beats LCD hands down.

“We see CRTs continuing to play a major role in specific applications like graphics, gaming, and video,” says Duane Brozek, a ViewSonic spokesperson.

Those monitor traits are important to graphic artists and fans of fast-paced shoot-’em-up games. For everyone else, flat panel LCD’s newly affordable prices, crisp colors, no-flicker displays, and small footprint are convincing selling points.

But while CRT prices remain lower than LCDs, the flat-panel prices that have leveled off some are expected to eventually fall further. The price drops will be less dramatic for CRTs, analysts say.

“[CRT] prices have gotten so low there is no place for prices to drop,” says Sam Bhavnani, an ARS analyst. Others predict mid-range CRTs could see price declines by as much as 10 percent this year, according to Stanford Resources-ISuppli.

Even less likely is significant new development in 60-year-old CRT technology. Some manufacturers have shortened the monitor’s tubes, and therefore its depth. But the main development is flat-screen CRT displays. The display’s edges are flat and don’t distort images and text like most fish-eye CRTs.

CRT makers are trying to innovate, however. For example, Samsung’s $219 19-inch SyncMaster 950b has a new HighlightZone feature that lets you adjust the brightness and color of only select portions of the monitor. ViewSonic is working on making its CRT monitors more brilliant for video and gaming applications.

Also working to coax more life to CRTs is Extreme Devices. The company is using artificial diamonds to make CRTs even cheaper and more efficient, says Kent Kalar, company president and chief executive officer.

Because diamond wafers don’t need to be heated to the same temperatures as cathode ray tubes, Extreme Devices’ monitors enjoy some of the same benefits as LCD displays – including instant activation and a 25 per cent power reduction. The monitor’s depth is halved, says Kalar.

Kalar expects the monitors will ship to consumers in 2004. He promises brighter screens, smaller pixels, and better picture clarity than today’s CRTs. By then, the CRT could truly be a novelty.